I've simply had too much work to do on my books lately, so I haven't been able to write as much, but autumn has really brought on a deluge of horror, so I've been fitting them in where I can. Since this seems to be the season for it, I wanted to touch on as many as I could. Many of these will probably be next year's Halloween Netflix options.
Voices from the Past
|DEFENSE (clap-clap) DEFENSE!|
While it is undeniably exactly what it sounds like (if it doesn't sound like a derivative 80s slasher set at a camp for cheerleaders, you may want to get your eyes checked) it also a comedy -- and a reasonably effective one -- which makes it more than exactly what it sounds like. I guessed the twist early in the film, but I still thought it was an effectively delivered one, which is much better than a "shocking" twist that cheats.
|"Hey Paul, the girls are here!"|
Now this is just random theorizing, but it seems to me that The Convent came along at kind of a weird time for horror movies, which may be partly responsible for the way that it both includes various elements and influences somewhat eclectically, but it also leaves it with a slight sensation that it wasn't completely sure what it meant to be in the end.
It's a comedy-horror, but the balance varies wildly. Coming at the turn of the millennium, it has some of the hip, youthful meta-awareness of post-Scream horror, but it's also way ahead of the curve in terms of paying homage to 80s horror (which has been a minor rage these past five years or so). It does a very effective job of building up the story and the fear, but then it uses such low-budget and poorly-considered creature effects that it's hard to take the running-and-screaming third act very seriously, and not because the jokes keep up the pace of the getting-to-know-you first act.
The opening scene is stone-cold-brilliant, as a rock-and-roll Catholic schoolgirl goes all shotgun rampage on nuns and priests to the tune of Leslie Gore's "You Don't Own Me." Cut to 20 years later, and a bunch of teenagers heading up to the old haunted convent for Halloween shenanigans. Evil is released again (THANKS GOTH-DOUCHE!), and the mystery of the past turns out to be the key to whether or not any of them will even have a future.
The first two-thirds of The Convent have so much character and humor that I was really disappointed by the more generic feeling third act (and demon-zombies that employ black light colors to look demonic), but even the third act had some fun to it. I don't mean to overstate the negatives. It's just that they were so startling in the context of the positives that it bears mention. Final tally; The Convent isn't particularly scary, but it's a heck of a lot of fun.
Comedy-Horror is Having a Good Run
|Bumper is also in this movie|
If Scream was a self-aware deconstruction of the classic slasher, The Final Girls is a meta-aware reconstruction for the next generation. If. They might not be. I'm just talkin'.
On the anniversary of a beloved teen slasher film, the star's daughter and her friends are sucked into the film and forced to survive. This should be a big sleeper hit when it comes to streaming services. People who haven't necessarily kept up with horror in their adult years should get a nostalgic kick out of it. Funny, with heart.
|I'm takin' what they're given cause I'm workin' for a livin'|
Work sucks. It really, really sucks. It saps our will, steals our identity, drains our lives away and leaves us hollow shells.
Bloodsucking Bastards recognizes the parallels between day jobs and night walkers, and makes the most of both sides. I'm not going to compare it to Office Space, but others have, and it's a fair comparison. I'm not sure I've seen a film since then with such biting insight into the drear of the corporate world, but when it wants to, Bloodsucking Bastards bites with ferocity. The horror side might have a little less tooth, but it makes up in blood and vigor what it lacks in bone-chills.
|Gravy has sauce.|
This is a deeply perverse little character-based hostage thriller/cannibal slasher comedy-horror with ample laughs. Like The Final Girls, Bloodsucking Bastards and Cooties, it's stocked with a great cast that keeps things interesting. Director James Roday (star of the series Psych) has a well-honed sense of comedic timing after 8 seasons of the show, which is both a great boon to the film, and a slight drawback. Many of the cast members are alumni of Psych (hand-picked, I would guess), and demonstrate a comfort working together, but there is also a... TV-ness to the delivery and camera work much of the time. I didn't mind that, but I definitely started to notice it somewhere in the second act. I hope that Roday's next feature sees him expanding beyond habits learned in television, which is to say that he should definitely get the opportunity.
|Give me a break, gimme a break...|
Whoever decided to create a movie where schoolchildren go full-on zombie mode on their teachers must have worked in a school at some point, because that's exactly what teaching feels like some days. That also pretty much tells you the story, but it's the jokes, the ensemble cast and the snot-nosed undead menace that make it work and keep it moving.
Be warned; the violence doesn't hold back, which means the zombie fighting may disturb some viewers on a visceral level, and Cooties is counting on that.
|Suspend your disbelief a little harder.|
The idea that Deathgasm touts is, "What if heavy metal were true?" What if the demons were real and the music could open portals into Hell, and whatnot. It's not a bad idea, but it feels a little late to the party and under-prepared. The film Knights of Badassdom did the whole heavy metal/demon summoning schtick earlier, better and funnier, and the video game Brutal Legend did the world of heavy metal mythology much more comprehensively and budget-appropriately for the scale of its subject matter. It ends up being a lightweight demon/zombie outbreak with heavy metal decorations -- which isn't necessarily the worst thing ever, but also isn't anything extra-special.
|Not the Ex|
Yay, Joe Dante is back with a horror movie! Boo, it's not really very good.
Max is too gutless to leave his awful girlfriend, Evelyn. He makes commitments he knows he has no intention of keeping because he just can't face the hard part. Then Evelyn dies, and he thinks he's finally off the hook for having to make choices with his life. Then he meets Olivia and it's like she was written for him. Just one problem; Evelyn is back -- somewhat more zombified than before, and taking all that "forever" pillow talk deadly seriously.
The rest of the movie is a series of variations on the theme of "This is going to keep happening until you man the fuck up, Max." I dunno, man... I've seen every film Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow have made, and a whole mess of other tales about man-boys growing up and taking responsibility, but somehow this one just broke the formula. Max's choices are so craven that I kind of just wished Evelyn would eat his face off and get it over with. Even though she's awful, she's also functioning with only partial information -- specifically, that Max is a coward and a liar. As such, it becomes increasingly difficult to blame her for the situation, and Max's eventual plotting to re-inter her becomes increasingly callous and dickish, while STILL cowardly and dishonest. So why do I care?
Alexandra Daddario is charming as the brass ring -- I mean, love interest -- but the rest of the movie is just an ugly downer, which really isn't a good look for a romantic comedy-horror.
|HONGRAY! Hungry Jack!|
There's a lot of potential in Lumberjack Man, but like a lot of things with potential, it becomes prematurely satisfied with itself and forgets to live. It's a comedy-horror that never really comes to grips with both elements, leaving them unbalanced and poorly blended in the end.
The comedy is delivered in two main ways. The main way is its setting in a Christian summer camp with the young counselors making preparations for their incoming campers. It never quite makes up its mind whether it's satirizing 80s teen campground films, or just remixing them. The other source of comedy is the killer -- a vengeful lumberjack that returns every thirty years since he was drowned in hot maple syrup by a huckster intent on stealing his flapjack recipe. When he returns, he slaughters as many people as he can and uses their blood to top his giant flapjacks. The concept is hilariously ludicrous, but wears a little thin through repetition.
On the horror side, it's really very gory with diverse and horrible kills that often intend to be funny, but less often succeed.
Performances are wildly uneven. Fortunately, the tart and likable final girl seems believably smart enough to survive, and Michael Madsen steals several scenes in an atypical role. On the other hand, why is Adam Sessler here? The film packs in so many victims that the characters who are supposed to matter don't really get enough time to do so.
It's not that Lumberjack Man is a bad movie. It's a totally okay movie, especially if you like really bloody slashers. The problem is, is could have been a really good movie, and it just didn't try hard enough.
Horror anthologies are great Halloween candy for viewers, with short story arcs that work well whether you're having a slumber party with your girls, or passing out candy to the one kid in your neighborhood who still goes door-to-door.
|Form and void|
Doomsday Book is a Korean collection of three short films skewing somewhat more to the sci-fi, but right at home in a sub-genre of horror that still can trace its lineage back through the EC comics of the 50s. The first part is a fairly modern remix of zombie outbreak tropes. This one was the least substantive, but the foreign setting infused it with a bit of fresh vigor. The second is a deeply existential consideration of a robot who may or may not have attained enlightenment in a Buddhist monastery. The third is possibly the most epic shaggy dog story ever told; starting with a girl who orders a replacement 8-ball for her uncle from a mysterious website. Cut to the end of the world.
|Here comes trouble!|
Ten tales of terror tied together with a tether.
The good news is that the various entries by various directors manage to vary less wildly than many other American horror anthos. They cover a broad range of standard horror types, telling simple spooky stories suitable for Halloween. The "bad" news is that sometimes they're just a little too simple. While I've come to find the perfunctory "twist" ending to be a little tedious (especially in anthologies), many of these "tales" felt like they missed some really solid opportunities to include them. I'm not sure how fair it is to fault them for not being something they weren't meant to be, but when the film did so much else right, the missed opportunities began to draw attention to themselves around the third or fourth time.
Still, really solid, and ideal for it's advertised purpose. Tales should grow a nice following on video, becoming a moderate Halloween standard.
|I beheld four riders|
Bone Tomahawk is a horror-western; something that hasn't been done a lot, and rarely well, which is a bit of a surprise, and really a shame. The story is a fairly straight-forward rescue odyssey, with a whole passel of idiosyncratic augments. What really makes the film worthwhile is the texture of the dialog and the great cast that delivers it.
We've seen the concept of the cannibalistic kidnappers/home-invaders/inbred throwbacks/cultists done quite a few times. They're generally built around mutated/insane hillbillies and other such Libertarians. Bone Tomahawk recasts that concept in the Wild West, with the role of the cannibalistic "troglodytes" going to a throwback offshoot of DEFINITELY NOT REPRESENTATIVE natives.
Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a cowboy, is laid up with a broken leg, meaning he has to spend time with his wife (Lilli Simmons) and realizes he actually kinda likes the gal. When she's kidnapped by cannibalistic cave dwellers, it's rescuin' time. O'Dwyer sets out with Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Freakin' Russell), Deputy "Chicory" (Richard Jenkins) and dandyish "war hero" (read: "Indian killer") Brooder (Matthew Fox) to hunt them down and bring her home (and, you know, the other deputy and the outlaw who were with her -- if it's convenient).
It's really a brilliant blend of conventions from both genres. The "long ride" format overlaps perfectly with the growing danger. Horror and Westerns both like a good bloodletting in the end. It does suffer in a few places from its budget. It's generally hoped that viewers won't notice the electric lights in and around town, or that many items of clothing or decor are simply store-bought. Once they get out on their journey, this becomes less distracting.
Again, the story is very simple, with a slow-burn that maybe starts a fire in the stable but doesn't exactly bomb the railroad bridge -- you feel me? A lot of time is spent on that journey, but Russell and Jenkins particularly make that time well spent.
I can't overstate how amazingly good Richard Jenkins is in Bone Tomahawk. I had no idea that the old-timer, Chicory was him until the movie was over, but somewhere around 2/3 of the way into the film, and continuing until the end, I kept repeating to myself "This guy is great!"
Bone Tomahawk isn't a symphony, but when you're out on the trail, a harmonica and guitar can be a much more fitting accompaniment.
Insidious: Chapter 3 - 2015
Over three films, the Insidious series has established a fairly high standard while developing its mythology. The first was good. The second was better, and made the first better as well. Now the third chapter goes back to a time before the others, fleshing out certain characters and filling in their story. Rather than simply telling an earlier version of the same story, it tells its own story, and still works in connections that lead into the previous films.
Quinn, a young woman still struggling with the loss of her mother, is a vulnerable target for sinster forces. Per the mythology of the Insidious world, contact with "the other side" tends to open doors that can allow the cursed dead a path back into the living world. So Quinn is in great danger when she reaches out to the spirit of her mother. While the artifice of Insidious' "other side" had once bothered me, I now accept it as a conceit of the series. Chapter 3 is a very touching ghost story that gives us reason to care. In fact, having rewatched the first two over Halloween weekend, I have come to realize how much the series really is about well-presented ordinary emotions like love, loss and the fear of losing loved ones. It's a remarkably human series.
It works perfectly on its own, independent of Chapter 1 & 2, but it still builds on their collective legend.
I'm on board with Insidious for the foreseeable future.
The Drownsman - 2014
The Drownsman is a fairly ambitious Canadian attempt at creating a new supernatural killer for the ages, and it mostly works. A young woman, having survived a near-death drowning experience, comes to live in constant fear of water, and the entity that hunts her from the water. It reminded me of 90s horror like Urban Legend and Final Destination, with big, new mythology discovered piecemeal as the mystery behind the killer is explored. The story groans a bit under the weight of its own gradual revelations, and the concept gets a little dopey if you think about it, but the tone and the scares are well-managed and it all hangs together just as much as it needs to to get by.
I guess this was kind of supposed to be the "it" horror movie of the year, but I don't think it really lived up to that promise. The idea is like a cross between the transferable curse of The Ring, and an STD. Once the curse has been passed, the victim is stalked relentlessly, albeit slowly.
It did a lot of the spooky/creepy/scary stuff really well, but it bogged down pretty badly in places, followed its own rules inconsistently, and just didn't really make its characters clever problem-solvers. In the end, there are some excellent pieces in a larger mess.
|Totally natural occurrence that couldn't possibly ruin your life!|
Ugh. A variation on the home-invasion sub-genre, in no way improved by Eli Roth. Of the film's many sins, perhaps the greatest is putting Keanu Reeves in a role that demands things which his skill set cannot deliver, like, human emotions. None of the anger, fear, humor, kindness, love or intellect that the character is supposed to express are present in his expressions. As such, there is no real point where the sensible viewer can connect with the character.
He's a family man. We know that because the house is covered with pictures of themselves as though it were a brand they had to convince themselves to support. The family goes away and he stays home to work. A couple of young women show up at his door, unable to find their party or get a cell signal. He lets them in, and despite the alarm bells ringing "CRAZY BITCHES," ends up in a saucy menage. Even his lust is unconvincing. Morning comes, weak man has regrets, and sociopaths have pretty much invited themselves to stay. He flips out. They flip out harder. Ridiculously bad choices continue unabated.
There really isn't even a story here. It's just things that happen on a pretty direct arc -- like a wadded up tissue full of spank-sauce thrown into the garbage. It's A to B storytelling, with no meaningful twists. I don't know what else to tell you. It's just a bad movie. Actually, I wish it were a worse movie. What it really feels, is inert, not unlike Reeves' performance.
We Are Still Here - 2015
Totally uninspired haunting/possession tale. The only "twist" is that the townspeople are "secretly" on the house's side. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Fire City: End of Days - 2015
If you pay much attention to horror movie credits, you've gotten used to what happens when a special effects wizard gets a chance to direct his own movie. You get great makeup effects, but maybe not the strongest story or performances. That's roughly what you get with Fire City: End of Days.
The performances actually aren't all that bad. The creature designs are marvelous. The story, however, skews a little slow and convoluted. Atum, one of the undercover demons living on Earth, is pursuing a mystery that could have ramifications for the balance of power between good and evil. To tell you the truth, I'm having a hard time remembering what any of that was. It's very definitely a noirish pot-boiler mystery in terms of structure, and barely qualifies as horror, outside of the demons and gore. There's really no sense of fear, and not that much tension, which is a problem. The director has potential. The monsters are fab. The script just isn't terribly professional. It feels like fan-fiction for a world you never heard of.
|Now with less wolf!|
A trainload of pissy Brits stalls in a dark wood on the last run of the night. The forest is home to werewolves. Then they die. That's pretty much the entire story.
Howl seems sheepish about completely committing to being one type of movie or another. It shortchanges a lot of its werewolf mythology while trying to treat it in more realistic ways, but then throws out any sort of realism when it comes to consistent application. It treats lycanthropy more like a zombie infection, with transformations being permanent and instantaneous upon death, resulting, evidently, in a bottomless blood lust that exceeds mere animal hunger.
The film is really slow for a lot of the run time. Unfortunately, very little of that non-action time is spent endearing us to the characters, so it largely becomes a process of hoping for certain ones to die sooner than others. Then when they do get killed, it's often in the dark, in quick-cut close-ups. Terribly unsatisfying. Which essentially covers the film as a whole.
|Now with more wolf!|
Oh honey, no.
It's part cabin-slasher, part monster-animal, and just a little bit werewolfy. A big, dauntingly friendly corporation tampers with polar bear genetics to help them survive climate displacement. Then a douchebag photographer shows up at a remote Alaskan lodge for a photo shoot with some boring, skinny girls. Then everyone gets killed by a bear.
Some of the early character interactions worked, and a snowbound arctic forest is still a reasonably fresh setting that comes with some moody, spooky touches that make for a different experience. Parts of the film are really very well filmed.
But for a films whose scares depend on you believing that they are being hunted by a bear, Unnatural completely fails in the bear department. There are bear shots in this film that look like they were edited in for the purposes of comedy. "Hey, what was that?! Let's get outta here you guys, I gotta bad feeling..." and then cut to a soft-focused giant teddy bear behind some trees. It was even worse when the action really kicked into gear. There simply is not a frame of film that makes the bear look even a little convincing. It's like a low budget 80s practical effect, and seems poorly designed to boot.
The characters are largely dominated by the d-bag, which is unfortunate because he's the least believable character in the film. Other than some nice photography, the best thing about Unnatural is the geek moment of having Ray Wise and Sherilynn Fenn of Twin Peaks together briefly on screen again. That's not a good enough reason to sit through Unnatural. If you want Twin Peaks alumni in a good horror movie, watch The People Under The Stairs.
Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story - 2015
A found-footage film based on a "Slender Man" type mythology (basically SM minus the tentacles or mane or whatever, which always seemed a poor design choice to me in the first place). It hits all of the obligatory found footage tropes, and falls into the same traps. This was one of the most abusive uses of of the conveniently-present camera I've ever seen, and yet for a supposedly professional news cameraman, there's never a frame that isn't an ugly, janky mess. Low budget and amateurish don't have to be the same thing. Here, they are.
The following two movies share a rare distinction. I watched them both twice. Now that's not rare. I watch lots of films twice if they're good. I didn't watch these twice because they were good, but because they were so forgettable. How forgettable? Not only did I forget I'd seen them (which almost never happens with me); I forgot I'd seen them until at least half an hour into each of them.
Demonic - 2015
Police investigate the aftermath of a haunted house massacre, realizing the identity of the "real killer" only when it's relevant to the narrative. There's a twist, but not really.
The Harvest - 2013
The main twist in The Harvest is that Michael Shannon is NOT the crazier partner in a married couple with a sickly, chair-bound son. Their tightly-wound world begins to unravel when a new girl shows up outside his window looking for a friend. It's slow-in-a-bad-way with unappealing characters (save for the girl) and a twist that you can probably figure out even if you don't see the movie. Which is a pretty good idea.